11 Things I Learned the Hard Way as a Pastor

By Chuck Lawless

On April 1, 1981, I began full-time ministry. Since then, I’ve thought a lot about my early days as a pastor – both the good and the bad. Here are 11 things I learned the hard way as a pastor:

  1. I really didn’t know how to exegete and preach the Word. I thought I did because I followed the models of other preachers and used sermon outline books. I look back now, though, and I pray God has supernaturally destroyed any sermon cassette tapes that bear my name. Seriously.  
  2.  I needed counseling training. I have no question that folks can counsel with only the Word, but I needed help in understanding problems and applying the Word appropriately. I was a single pastor for a number of years, but it didn’t take me long after marriage to learn I didn’t know anything about marriage counseling, either. 
  3. I did not know my community. What I realized too late was that I knew the community most connected to my church members. I didn’t know the community completely disconnected from the church world.
  4.  It’s easy to avoid accountability in the pastorate. Especially as a single-staff leader, it’s easy to do ministry (or something) without many folks knowing your schedule, your activities, your outreach, etc. Laziness lurks when accountability is non-existent.
  5. Evangelistic fire needs fuel to continue burning. I was an on-fire evangelist my first years as a pastor (in fact, I’m sure I was a bit obnoxious at times). Ministry, though, had a way of diverting my attention so my fire for telling everybody about Jesus diminished for a while.
  6. Evangelistic growth without discipleship leads to whining. That’s inevitable, actually. If the church has a large number of baby Christians who are not led to growth, they remain babies – even after we place them in leadership positions.
  7. Marriage ministry must be more than reactive. I spent too long working to clean up marital problems among members before I realized we needed to teach youth and young adults about biblical standards of marriage.
  8.  If you think you must (or can) fix everything, you’re probably idolatrous. Only God can fix everything. When I thought I could – and had to if I were a good pastor – I had placed myself in the position of God.
  9. I could (and still can) do ministry in my own power. It stings to write those words even now. Training and experience might make us sound good and lead decently, but they do not automatically result in a display of God’s power.
  10. Rest and exercise matter. More than once in 39+ years of ministry, I’ve burned out at least briefly. I haven’t always taken care of myself as I should. Frankly, I’m still learning this lesson. Pray for me that I will learn it well. 

 Apart from God’s grace, I’m fairly stupid. Actually, I could write several more posts like this one to prove my point. I promise.  

What lessons have you learned the hard way?  

Posted on April 15, 2020

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Ricky Adams says on

    Thanks, im new pastoring I’m thankful to hear some of your obstacles. Coming out after twenty plus years studying and lot of time with the Good Lord.
    I request you’ll prayer please.
    Pastors Rickey Wayne Adams
    True Gospel Missionary Ministries. God Bless!

  • Davi d G. Tr ou blef ield, PhD, DMin says on

    12. God will keep you humble; the congregation will keep you poor. Both are good at what they do 🙂

    13. Senior pastors are directly responsible for preaching, leading, and pastoral care. Pastoral care is the wild card that can turn a week well-planned on its head. Do pastoral care strategically in order to care for the church—including lots and lots of eating-meetings in the fellowship hall, and always serve the pie and sweet tea instead of sitting down to eat (eat a bowl of cereal at home later; these times are the only chances for members whose marriages aren’t on the rocks, kids aren’t in jail, or etc. get a chance really to talk to you up close and personal).

    14. 2 points and a stanza

    15. Your MOST IMPORTANT meeting to attend with other members: Weekly Sunday School/small group Bible study strategy planning meetings. Your leaders will attend if you demonstrate its high priority by your own weekly attendance. Your congregation’s numerical growth will not be sustained year-after-year if you don’t (the evidence: your own congregation’s growth pattern during the past five years!).

  • Apostle Andrew says on

    Amen to this

  • Bob Jayne says on

    I was telling another Pastor the other day that I hoped no one heard my sermons from when I started pastoring, after years of studying the scriptures I found out back then I really didn’t understand the Bible as much as I thought I did, and foolishly preached stuff that I heard other pastors preach and it wasn’t even scriptural. Just a good thought. I also was blown away when I found out that not everybody loved me. Wow, thanks for your honesty and was looking for #11.

  • Patrick Guarracino says on

    Spoken like a true veteran. Keep on teaching us my brother. I printed your article and am keeping it in front of me as a constant reminder to stay healthy and humble by His grace.


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